City Journal

Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills
Can Terrorists Turn Out Gotham’s Lights?
Here’s how to strengthen our vulnerable power grid.
Autumn 2004

Who stayed lit after Gotham's lights went out during the blackout of August 2003? Batteries and standby generators kicked in to keep trading alive on the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq. But the AmEx failed to open; true, it had backup generators for the trading-floor computers, but it depended on Consolidated Edison to cool them, so that they wouldn't melt into puddles of silicon. Banks kept their ATM-control computers running at their central offices, but most of the ATMs themselves went dead. With their robust backup generators, Verizon's wireline switching centers smoothly handled traffic volumes three times above normal, but cell phone service deteriorated fast, since soaring call volumes quickly drained the cell tower backup batteries. Traffic lights went out, but backup generators kept the city's Traffic Management Center alive enough to re-synchronize about half of them quickly when the power came back on. The dedicated fiber line that links City Hall to the city's broadcast media went dark when a Time Warner hub lost power. The radio communications system for police, fire, and other emergency services progressively lost capacity as the backup batteries for many radio repeaters ran down. Power from a satellite truck, though, allowed Katie Couric and Lester Holt to broadcast the Today show from Rockefeller Plaza.

The Times Square "W" hotel was open for business and humming: management had upgraded the backup system after an earlier outage reminded everyone that electricity ran not just the electronic room keys but also the water pumps that flushed the toilets. But the New Yorker Hotel in midtown went dark. To much acclaim, it had previously installed a "synchronous" cogeneration plant—which unfortunately has to shut down when grid power fails so that it doesn't electrocute linemen working on the wires outside. As it happened, the hotel was hosting a seminar for elevator mechanics that day; they helped extract guests trapped in the hotel's elevators, including a group trapped in the middle of a 20-story blind shaft, which required breaking a hole through a wall on the 15th floor.

It takes almost 11 gigawatts of electricity to keep New York City lit in the late afternoon on a hot summer day—a huge amount of power. All the air conditioners, lights, elevators, and quietly humming computers inside use a whole lot more energy than the cars and trucks out on the streets. But because the fuels and infrastructure that deliver the electric power are so distant and well hidden, it's hard to focus public attention on how vital they are to the city's survival. And how vulnerable.

Few of us have even the vaguest idea just how much a gigawatt of power might be. So let's talk Pontiacs instead: 110,000 of them, parked door to door in Central Park. At exactly the same moment, 110,000 drivers start the 110,000 engines, shift into neutral, push pedal to metal, and send 110,000 engines screaming up to the tachometer's red line. Collectively, these engines are now generating a total of about 11 gigawatts of shaft power.

Where do these 11 gigawatts come from? The Independent System Operator (ISO), a government-chartered clearinghouse responsible for the reliability of New York City's power supply, requires that 80 percent of the city's power be generated within the city, and accordingly, the city's current in-city capacity is about 8.8 gigawatts. About 3.7 gigawatts are imported via overhead transmission lines that run down from the north to Westchester, where they transmit to underground cables. These lines bring in nuclear and hydroelectric power from upstate New York, Connecticut, and Quebec. About 1 gigawatt comes over three lines from the west, through New Jersey, bearing mainly coal-fired power from the Midwest. Until they get quite close to the city, all the main lines run above ground, across hundreds of miles of open country.

It takes astonishing feats of engineering to get the power those last miles into the city. The three main cables from the west run from substations in New Jersey under the harbor and Hudson River to Con Edison substations on Staten Island and in Brooklyn. These cables could carry 1,500 megawatts, but deliveries are in fact limited to 600-1,000 megawatts. In April 2003, state regulators certified the Cross Hudson project, a quite modest (by power-industry standards) eight-mile cable that will funnel up to 550 megawatts to Manhattan from gas-fired plants in Ridgefield, New Jersey. This new circuit will follow a railroad right-of-way through the New York Susquehanna and Western Railroad Tunnel, enter the Hudson River at Edgewater, New Jersey, make landfall in New York between Piers 95 and 96 through 30-inch-diameter bore holes under the bulkhead in the Clinton Cove area of Hudson River Park, run down a bike path, cross 12th Avenue, and interconnect with an existing Con Ed substation at West 49th Street.

More and more of the city's power arrives not through an electric cable but via a gas pipeline, since regulators have been increasingly reluctant to approve anything but gas-fired plants within city limits. And just two groups of pipelines feed all of Gotham's gas-fired power plants—three pipelines that bring in gas from the Gulf Coast region, and the Iroquois Gas Transmission system that receives western Canadian gas from the Trans-Canada pipeline in Ontario.

So sever or disable just a handful of transmission and gas lines, and New York goes dark. One need not dwell on the specifics of what has to be cut or where to cut it. According to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report (not specifically addressing New York), "a coordinated attack on a selected set of key points in the [electrical] system could result in a long-term, multi-state blackout. While power might be restored in parts of the region within a matter of days or weeks, acute shortages could mandate rolling blackouts for as long as several years." Why so long? In a nutshell, because the key pieces of the giant, complex, ultra-high-power equipment that controls the flow of electricity have to be custom-built, at huge expense, for each particular location; spares can't feasibly be kept on the shelf.

For New York, any such sustained outage would, obviously, be devastating. Electricity occupies a uniquely important role in the infrastructure of all of modern society, but nowhere more so than in the heart of the metropolis. A complete loss of power shuts down telephone switches, wireless cell towers, bank computers, 911 operator centers, police communications networks, hospital emergency rooms, air traffic control, street lights, elevators, and the electrically actuated valves and pumps that move water, oil, and gas, along with the dedicated, highly specialized communications networks that control those physical networks. The loss of power also takes out virtually all of the new security systems and technologies, both private and public—not just communications and computing but everything from iris scanning to baggage x-raying, from security cameras to perimeter intrusion systems, from air-quality monitors to air scrubbers. More broadly, the loss of power shuts down any factory, office, or building that depends on computers, communications systems, pumps, motors, cooling systems, or any other electrically operated hardware.

With so much of what we do dependent on embedded microprocessors, almost every corner of our lives and every sector of the economy—especially the financial-services sector—depends on a steady flow of power to keep the chips lit. Much of the city's wealth exists and grows within a steady flow of the half-gigawatt (or so) of power required to keep silicon hot, screens lit, phones humming, discs spinning, lasers shining, and air conditioners running to dump the waste heat that all this digital hardware produces. The well-tempered electron is the new medium of exchange. Without power, the wealth of the modern city evaporates. The 8/14 blackout cost the city an estimated $1 billion.

According to Mayor Bloomberg's task force to review what happened and make recommendations as to how a repetition might be avoided, the city was fortunate this time in that the outage was of limited duration and occurred during daylight at the end of the workweek; the weather was good; many New Yorkers were vacationing out of town; schools were closed. That's a chilling, rather than a reassuring, assessment: the big one, in other words, still lies ahead.

Electric New York started in 1882, at Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station power plant. Edison had designed and built six "Jumbo Engine-Driver Dynamos," each one a 27-ton, steam-driven 100-kilowatt behemoth, four times bigger than any other electric generator previously built. The entire useful output of all these tons of steel, and the mountains of coal that they would burn, ran down thin metal wire—15 miles of it, snaking through New York City's bustling financial district to the 85 customers who had installed Edison's new electric lamps.

As Jill Jonnes recounts in Empires of Light, the early wires were far from perfect—an electrical fire seriously damaged the library at J. P. Morgan's elegant Madison Avenue brownstone, one of Edison's first installations. Even so, gas and oil lamps didn't stand a chance against the remarkably quick, compact, and clean new source of power. The Pearl Street wires have grown into the North American grid—by far the largest network on the planet, after our roads and highways. Nationwide, generating stations dispatch electrical power through some 680,000 miles of high-voltage, long-haul transmission lines to 100,000 substations, which in turn send it out through 2.5 million miles of local distribution wires to our toasters, computers, and industrial robots. But as we vividly saw on August 14, 2003, the grid still isn't as robust as we'd like, even when no one is deliberately trying to bring it down.

Blame the French. What offended the Gallic pride of one young Parisian in 1824 was that British engineers had managed to push their steam engines so far ahead of their French counterparts, and without even working out a grand theory of what was going on. His Gallic genius challenged, Sadi Carnot set out to determine just how much useful work could, in theory, be extracted from a kilogram of steam. His resulting slim book, less than 120 pages, set out for the first time what we now call the second law of thermodynamics, one of the universe's most fundamental laws.

Carnot grasped that temperature difference is the key—the bigger the gap in temperature between the furnace and the condenser, the more useful work you can extract. Thus, mechanical engineers push the temperature of engines up and up, burning coal, uranium, gas, or oil not just hot, but fiercely hot, as hot as they can make it without melting down or blowing up the expensive hardware. So furnaces grew bigger and bigger—bigger systems are easier to keep hot because they have less surface per unit of volume, and because they can be surrounded more cost-effectively by materials like concrete and steel that can both contain and survive the heat—and in the process power plants grew more efficient.

The result is that electricity has grown steadily cheaper in the 125 years since Edison first turned on the lights on Wall Street. Improved engine designs have boosted efficiency—turbines replaced piston engines, for example. And the turbines have grown colossal, which makes them not only more efficient but cheaper per unit of generating capacity. There are huge economies of scale in building and maintaining these behemoths. Our central power plants, which burn about 40 percent of the nation's fuel, run two to three times as efficiently as our cars and trucks, which burn 30 percent of our fuel (with 30 percent left to heat homes and workplaces).

Over the long term, even as fuel prices have fluctuated and fuel mixes have shifted, the average retail price of the kilowatt-hour has fallen steadily since Edison fired up his Pearl Street generators. When electricity prices have gyrated, it has been because of regulatory and political factors, not fuel supplies or technology. The long-term price trends are unambiguous.

But all this efficiency has entailed sprawl—grid sprawl. A 1-gigawatt plant—of which there are now plenty—can power the homes, workplaces, and factories of 400,000 people, but the power has to get to them, moving either above the tarmac or underneath it.

High-voltage electricity is such a dense, pure form of power that it can be dispatched over enormous distances with modest losses, much as a beam of laser light can circle the globe through a sufficiently pure strand of glass. Year by year, stretched out by the rising efficiency of swelling power plants, the wires have grown longer, the average distance between where power is generated and where it is used rising inexorably.

Though their electrical resistance does cause some losses, longer wires create a further efficiency. Local demand for electricity varies by time of day. When wires are long enough, the same power plant can accommodate peak demand at 4:00 pm in New York and then a second time an hour later in Chicago, one time zone to the west. With lots of plants knitted together in a huge grid, all can operate at closer to full capacity for more hours of the day, which keeps things hotter still.

Finally, environmental and zoning regulations make it ever harder to locate smokestacks and cooling towers near where we live. One of electricity's best features is that it readily separates the hot, dirty business of burning coal (say) from the cascade of sparkling ice out of the refrigerator door. So not-in-my-backyard regulation means longer wires to some less populated backyard far away.

By every measure but one, these trends have been good. Electricity has grown extraordinarily cheap because the sprawling grid is so very efficient. Its environmental costs—whatever they may be—are largely invisible. But with these advantages has come an extraordinary peril. A structure that sprawling, that exposed, is open to all sorts of assaults. And blackouts can be as extensive as the network that connects grids from Texas to Manitoba.

Even in the best of times, keeping order across thousands of miles of high-voltage wires requires very sophisticated control. Weather has caused four massive outages in recent memory: hurricanes in 1992 and 1996, and ice storms in 1998 and 2002. Spasms of human stupidity have worked their mischief, too. In 1991, construction workers installing drawbridge support pillars in the Chicago River put one in the wrong place; seven months later, a car-size crack opened up in the roof of a freight tunnel directly beneath it, and the ensuing flood shut down utility power for weeks in the heart of Chicago.

When a serious disturbance hits the grid, problems can cascade and amplify like trucks and cars piling up on a highway. Because they are so long and carry so much current, the wires store huge amounts of power in the electric and magnetic fields that surround them. They have enormous electrical inertia, and when things change abruptly at one end, the wires themselves act like massive malignant generators that knock voltage and current out of phase and send huge amounts of "reactive power" sloshing up and down the system, like waves in a bathtub—except that they propagate at close to the speed of light.

Thus, when a single faulty relay at an Ontario, Canada, power station caused a key transmission line to disconnect ("open") on November 9, 1965, a sequence of escalating line overloads cascaded almost instantaneously down the main trunk lines. Additional lines failed, cutting off cities and towns from the plants that supplied their power. Generating plants in the New York City area then shut down automatically to prevent overloads to their turbines. The entire northeastern United States and large parts of Canada plunged into an 18-hour blackout.

The massive blackout of the Northeast on August 14, 2003, unfolded similarly, though more slowly. The northeastern grid wasn't particularly stressed that Thursday. No great heat wave gripped the East Coast; the major transmission lines weren't running at full load; there was generating capacity to spare. The reported first cause of the 8/14 blackout was a tree interfering with a major power line. But one tree falling in the forest should not be able to black out a whole region five seconds later.

It didn't. The tree had triggered an hour-long series of line failures and plant shutdowns in northern Ohio, near Cleveland—and the implications had gone unnoticed and unattended to, because a computer had been switched off and a technician was out to lunch. As the follow-up investigation concluded, the computer tools used to diagnose the state of the grid supervised by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, a gatekeeper called into existence by the federal government's decision to foster competitive power markets, were "under development and not fully mature" when the fateful tree fell in Ohio. Thus, a grid moving gigawatts of power collapsed because it failed to move a couple of screens' worth of data, and execute a few hundred bits' worth of digital logic.

Mayor Bloomberg's post-8/14 task force succinctly and correctly called for better planning, coordination, and organization, better and more robust communications, and better backup power nearly everywhere for the communications networks and much else besides. Getting action on these solid recommendations, however, is a huge challenge, especially since much of the action requires coordination across a lot more of the grid than the city's public and private sectors control.

Grid engineers maintain and restore order, if they can, at "interties" and "substations"—switching points. It is at these nodes that the engineers attempt to isolate problems and flatten out the waves of power by routing power in and out of different lines and through huge transformers and capacitors. High-power switches thus order the grid much as microscopic gates add logic to a Pentium. These switches are controlled, in turn, by the grid's "supervisory control and data acquisition" (SCADA) networks—a sort of private Internet that moves data among the computers that control the hardware that in turn controls the power. Sensors and dedicated communications links feed information about the state of the grid to regional transmission authorities and to the utility control centers that control the switches.

Had they had real-time access to SCADA networks in Ohio, utilities across the Northeast would have seen the August 14 problem coming many minutes, if not hours, before it hit and could have activated protective switches before the giant wave swept east to overpower them. But in the deregulatory scramble of the 1990s, regulators had pushed the physical interconnection of power lines out ahead of the interconnection of SCADA networks. The software systems needed for automated monitoring and control across systems had not yet been deployed. By contrast, on-site power networks in factories and data centers nationwide are monitored far more closely and make much more sophisticated use of predictive failure algorithms.

Nor had the grid's key switches kept pace. To this day, almost all the grid's logic is provided by electromechanical switches—massive, spring-loaded devices that take fractions of seconds (an eternity by electrical standards) to actuate. But ultra-high-power silicon switches could control grid power flows much faster, more precisely, and more reliably. Already, these truck-size cabinets, containing arrays of solid-state switches that can handle up to 35 megawatts, safeguard power supplies at military bases, airport control hubs, and data and telecom centers. At levels up to 100 megawatts, enormous custom-built arrays of solid-state switches could both interconnect and isolate high-power transmission lines, but so far, they're operating at only about 50 grid-level interconnection points worldwide.

Advanced control software, interconnected data networks, and high-speed, high-power switches at key locations would instantly make the grid as smart as it is powerful. Power suppliers know where to put the software and the switches. What regulators have failed to give them, though, is any incentive to do so. The 1992 Energy Policy Act deregulated the prices that utilities could charge one another for power they shipped across state borders, but it left regulated the prices that they could charge for use of their transmission lines—ensuring that the existing lines would be used more heavily, but creating no incentive to maintain or upgrade them. The prices that grid operators may charge are set too low, with no premium for maintaining a more reliable grid or penalty for failing to do so. Unwittingly, regulators have systematically channeled investment capital away from the crucial wires that need it.

But even if the incentives were set exactly right, there's no escaping the vulnerability of the grid. The wonder of the modern power plant is that it can be built so large, run so efficiently, and serve so many, so cheaply; the inescapable corollary is that when it fails, the impact reverberates widely. The wonder of the grid is that it conveys so much power through such thin wires so efficiently over such great distances; those same features make it vulnerable to nature—and to terrorists.

More grid—especially more transmission capacity safely buried underground or under the sea—is certainly part of the solution. The key words in the National Academy of Sciences report mentioned earlier are "coordinated attack" and "selected set of key points." The more transmission lines that funnel power into the city, and the more terrorist-proof they are, the harder it is to sever enough of them to cause major problems. Unfortunately, regulatory obstacles make it tough to mobilize capital to get new cables up and running.

Take the 330-megawatt Cross Sound cable, for example, linking Long Island to Connecticut. By the time it was finished in 2002, Connecticut authorities had decided that they didn't like it after all—cables allow in-state power producers to sell to higher bidders out of state, so for states with power to spare, nixing long cables helps keep in-state prices low. As it happened, engineers had been unable to bury the cable to the minimum depth specified by certain construction permits, and Connecticut blocked remedial measures.

An emergency order from Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham got the line energized after the August 2003 blackout, but the order was rescinded last May at the urging of Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who argued that the emergency had passed. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) finally pressured the parties to negotiate a settlement, and in June 2004, Connecticut agreed to approve the cable if the Long Island Power Authority would help pay to replace an antiquated cable between Northport on Long Island and Norwalk, Connecticut. It sounds like a happy ending—but a two-year delay in getting a capital-intensive facility operational can easily tip the balance from profit to loss on the entire project. When the gap between present borrowing and future revenues gets long enough, no amount of future income will ever pay back the accumulated interest.

Or consider how the federal government's own regulations contribute to the difficulty of financing private transmission lines. FERC has established a system that pushes transmission-line builders to auction off capacity to all comers in what is called an "open-season" process. To regulators, this seems evenhanded and fair, but in the real world, especially one so new and uncertain as the private electrical-transmission world, cutting pre-construction deals with a favored few anchor tenants who are willing to commit early cash is an essential fact of business life. So, for example, a private power company, Conjunction, wants to build a $400 million, 140-mile, 1-gigawatt underground line along Interstate 87 and into Queens—the nation's longest underground cable. But Conjunction's best prospect for financing is to bid successfully on a 500-megawatt contract to supply power to the New York Power Authority—which would require FERC to relax its rules to permit Conjunction to sell such a large fraction of the new cable's capacity to a single buyer at the outset.

Underwater cables are even safer than underground wires but are even more costly. The proposed Neptune project would run a 2,000-mile, 4.8-gigawatt, $3 billion undersea network down the East Coast from Atlantic, Canada, to New Jersey—the world's largest undersea power network. The Neptune Regional Electric Transmission System will begin with a cable connecting Sayresville, New Jersey, to Hicksville on Long Island. Lines from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine to Boston and New York City await funding. The wait could be long: Neptune's FERC-mandated "open-season" auction for potential long-term customers in September 2001 met with very limited response, and Neptune has put off construction plans.

The other alternative is to build more but smaller power plants, closer to where the electricity is needed. The more dispersed and redundant the system, the harder it gets to bring it all down.

Independent power vendors have been doing that, too, more by accident than by design, as they have scrambled to build gas-fired plants when demand began to outpace supply. New coal plants take at least five years to build, and nuclear facilities longer still, if they can be built at all, and regulators in states like New York and California shun both forms of fuel. So utilities and the new independent generators rushed to build gas-fired plants, which take only six months to two years and are opposed least vehemently by Green activists, who believe that gas is the cleanest and safest of affordable options.

But the new, closer-to-home gas plants provide no improvement in grid reliability. Gas-fired plants depend on gas pipelines, which are even longer than—and as vulnerable as—long wires. The pipelines depend on huge pumping stations to keep the gas moving; take out a handful of big compressors at a few key locations, and the gas will stop moving the whole length of the line for the weeks that it takes to replace hardware of this scale and complexity.

What else might be done? People who love all things green but have no notion of how much power a gigawatt really is will invariably respond with musings about solar and wind power, and fuel cells. But for now, at least, these alternatives are no more reliable than the fuels themselves or the backup batteries deployed alongside them; they are also uneconomical and—because they rely on such thin fuels—require a large amount of space to generate comparatively minuscule amounts of power.

With 2,000 square feet set aside for on-site power, a diesel generator together with ancillary power conversion electronics and a buried fuel tank can provide a megawatt of power for a week. On the same footprint, a solar array with its essential backup batteries can provide only a hundreth as much power, and at roughly a hundred times the capital cost. Fuel cells, which use delicate, high-tech membranes to convert hydrogen (extracted from natural gas) directly into electricity, can do better; they are certainly more compact than solar, run very clean and quiet, and can thus be deployed directly on commercial premises. Two 200-kilowatt fuel cells, for example, on the fourth floor of the Condé Nast Building in Times Square, power a huge sign on the building's facade. But fuel cells remain a relatively unproven and expensive technology, and without large on-premises gas-storage tanks, they are no more impregnable than the gas lines that feed them. And they occupy two to four times as much space as a diesel setup.

When serious people get practical today, they turn to just two backup technologies—and only one of them supplies more than a few hours of power. Some 3 to 5 percent of the public grid's capacity is backed up by arrays of batteries (and ancillary electronics), parked under desktops or in office closets or basements, that cushion delicate equipment from electrical blips and supply power during blackouts ranging from minutes to hours. Also backing up the grid stand some 80 gigawatts of on-site diesel generators—about 10 percent of the total generating capacity that lights the grid.

This is the backup technology of choice: a diesel truck, stripped of everything but its engine. Sized from tens to thousands of kilowatts, diesel generator sets can provide days (or more) of backup run time, depending on the amount of fuel stored on site and whether supplies can be replenished. Most everyone who installs backup systems strongly favors these generators over other options because of their balance between cost, size, safety, emissions, and overall reliability.

The FAA, for example, relies on nearly 3,000 diesel generators to ensure backup power for its air traffic control centers; tens of thousands of other diesel generators back up airport towers, hospitals, military bases, data centers, and other critical power nodes. If both of the two primary grid feeds fail at AOL's campus in Prince William County, Virginia, the substation turns to power from a 13-unit string of 2-megawatt diesel generators, sitting on five days of fuel oil. Company-wide, AOL alone has 74 megawatts of backup generating capacity at its current facilities, with another 26 megawatts destined for facilities under construction. In Louisiana, in response to serious problems created by a storm-caused power outage in 2002, Jefferson Parish (as just one example of such actions) approved installation of 17 diesel generators at its drainage pump stations.

Mounted on tractor trailers, power-plants-on-wheels offer the same economies of sharing as fire engines and rescue vehicles. After floods and hurricanes cause power outages, for instance, the Army Corps' 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) installs emergency trailer-mounted generators at hospitals and other critical sites. Built by Cummins or Caterpillar, 2- to 5-megawatt trailer-mounted diesels can generate private, on-site power, but in an emergency they can be used by utilities for emergency generation at the substation level of the grid. Given the many obstacles—both cost-related and regulatory—that impede permanent deployment of backup generators, fleets of strategically positioned mobile power units offer the most practical assurance of power continuity for many critical applications.

The best thing about a diesel generator is the diesel itself. Most backup diesel generators burn distillate fuel oil, the same fuel used for heating and for aircraft. These fuels store huge amounts of energy in very small volumes, and because they power the transportation sector, a huge, distributed infrastructure of trucks and tanks already exists to transport and store sufficient fuel to keep key electrical loads lit for weeks or longer. The far-flung network of diesel storage tanks, wherever trucks travel and planes land, is effectively invulnerable to the kinds of catastrophes that could incapacitate major power lines or gas pipelines. If (say) 10 percent of the nation's electric loads are viewed as "critical," then one week's supply of our national fuel oil consumption would provide roughly one month of critical power. The last line of defense for the perilously efficient grid will ultimately have to be found in the parking lot outside the power plant. The parking-lot engines are less thermodynamically efficient, but they are smaller, more dispersed, and thus collectively less vulnerable.

When all the lights fail, you have to light a candle, first, to find your way to the fuse box. It's much the same with a city and its grid. When power fails over a wide area, recovery always has to begin locally, in islands of self-help and resilience. Responsible hospitals, government agencies, phone companies, broadcasters, and other private enterprises don't count on the public grid in times of crisis—they deploy their own standby generators and switching systems from the get-go, so that when disaster hits everywhere else, they're the ones that stay up and running. And in any event, the grid is a shared resource; it would be wildly uneconomic to try to harden it everywhere just to meet the power-reliability needs at truly critical nodes scattered throughout a city.

At the same time, distributed, small-scale, and often private efforts to secure power supplies at individual nodes directly strengthen the reliability of the public grid. Large-area power outages like the one on 8/14 often result from cascading failures. Aggressive load shedding is the only way to cut off chain reactions of this kind. A broadly distributed base of secure capacity on private premises adds resilience to the public grid, simply by making a significant part of its normal load less dependent on it. Islands of especially robust and reliable power serve as centers for relieving stresses on the network and for restoring power more broadly. Thus, in the aggregate, private initiatives to secure private power can increase the stability and reliability of the public grid as well.

How, then, can we encourage such initiatives? Mayor Bloomberg's 2003 Emergency Response Task Force recommended a comprehensive survey of backup power systems and needs, and development of a plan to install more backup power. It suggested reviewing and monitoring backup power systems at telecommunications and health-care facilities. Like it or not, key private-sector segments—banks, for instance—must work closely with government to ensure power continuity at private facilities deemed critical to government functions. We can also do much more to encourage private generating facilities to supply power to the grid. With suitable tariffs and interfaces in place, backup generators can help pay for themselves by generating private power when the demand for power from the public grid is at its peak and prices are the highest. And because power-generation facilities are so capital-intensive, allowing accelerated depreciation (or immediate expensing) for tax purposes would bring more private generators online.

Removing existing obstacles to new facilities would help ensure our power supply, too. It's understandable that city folks oppose a new power plant next door and that rural citizens oppose power lines through their unspoiled countryside. Zoning and environmental regulations, fire codes, and jurisdictional and insurance-related issues often stand in the way of the on-site generating facilities of last resorts and the fuel tanks that they require. But in the new, post-9/11 world, these are problems we have to solve, right now.

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism

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